A new church amid the rice fields of Kampong Ko
Consecrated by the Apostolic Prefect of Battambang, Fr Enrique Figaredo Alvargonzales, the church dedicated to Saint Teresa of Avila, was built in a Christian village thanks to the work among the poor of a French missionary before the Khmer Rouge. For Fr Kristofia Todjro, a PIME missionary from Togo, the elderly have guarded the faith; the challenge now is not to lose young people.
Kampong Thom (AsiaNews) – A new church now stands in the middle of rice fields. On Wednesday, the Catholic community in Kampong Koh, Apostolic Prefecture of Battambang, celebrated the solemn consecration of their new church, dedicated to Saint Teresa of Avila.
The apostolic prefect, Fr Enrique Figaredo Alvargonzales, led the service. Next to him stood the parish priest in Kampong Thom district, Fr Kristofia Komlavi Todjro, a PIME missionary from Togo, in Cambodia since 2015. The local village chief and other local authorities were present.
With the contribution of the local community, Fr Kristofia completed the work started by his predecessor, Fr Marc Lopez, SJ, thanks to the support of a Spanish benefactor and the Pontifical Mission Societies.
“Kampong Ko,” said Fr Kristofia, “is 17 km from the provincial capital, Kampong Thom. It is a village lost among the rice fields, home to simple people: Khmer and ethnic Vietnamese, now third or fourth generation.
"It has an important place in the history of the Catholic community. It developed as a Catholic village, before Pol Pot, drawing the poor to whom Fr Robert Venet, a French missionary from the Mission étrangères de Paris (MEP), gave the opportunity to farm the rice field protected by a small dam he had built. That's why there's no Buddhist pagoda here.”
Kampong Ko is the mother church for this corner of Cambodia, not far from Tonle Sap Lake. The Catholics who now live in nearby villages came from here. But its history is one of suffering, like that of Saint Teresa Avila, to whom the church in Kampong Ko is dedicated, the fourth building of its kind.
After the first one in wood, Fr Venet built a beautiful brick building in 1965. By 1970 the community numbered as many as 800. Then came the war: the great church was razed to the ground by American bombing, the rest by the Khmer Rouge.
A third, wooden church was built only in 1995, at the exact place where the destroyed church stood, for a community that had begun to take its first steps, again.
Fr Franco Legnani, also a PIME missionary, accompanied the rebirth of the village from 1997 to 2008. He remembers that “Poverty then was extreme. There was no road to reach Kampong Ko; in the rainy season, you could only get there by boat. That little wooden church was the only point of reference."
Today the situation has changed. The road arrived as did electricity and Internet connection. Communications are easier, but for many young people it also means being able to take very different paths. The challenges, therefore, for a missionary presence are no less than those of yesterday.
“The two oldest women in the village held the ribbon of the inauguration,” Fr Kristofia said. “One, who is 102 years old, was baptised by Fr Venet.” Having her “is a way to show that we want to pass on the same faith they guarded to their grandchildren.”
The paintings on the church walls were made by an artist who works in pagodas. At first, he was hesitant since he had never confronted Christian iconography.
Fr Kristofia pointed to the tabernacle and told him. “There is the spirit master of Earth and heaven, ask him! The painter paused for a while inside and then accepted. So today the people of Kampong Ko are proud of their church and it isn’t bad compared to pagodas.”
But Fr Kristofia has another dream. “We have a kindergarten, but we need a small school with a pastoral centre; four classrooms for after-school with the kids, meetings, a computer room for young people. We can't let them get lost in drugs or go to the city to work in factories.”
This is the mission in Cambodia today. It is in the hands of a community stronger than any challenge in the rice fields of Kampong Ko.